Adolf Hitler wakes up with a dreadful headache. He’s a little bemused to find himself lying in what seems to be a wasteland. He picks himself up and makes his way to a news kiosk where he’s astonished to find that it’s August 30th 2011. He’s at a loss to know what’s happened but the newspaper seller whose stand is frequented by media types spots an opportunity. This guy, who appears to be a method actor, is such a dead ringer for the Fürhrer all he needs are a few introductions to the right people. Before long Hitler’s spot supporting comedian Ali Gagmez on TV is so successful that he gets his own show. There are a few hitches with the contract – just what is his real name – but soon he’s the current YouTube phenomenon. The trouble is, nobody quite gets it: they think he’s particularly edgy stand up comic – he thinks he’s launching a campaign to restart National Socialism.
Satire can often go horribly wrong, particularly if you choose to narrate your novel through the voice of one of the 20th century’s greatest villains, but Timur Vermes carries it off beautifully, chucking lampoons in all directions and managing to hit his mark nearly all the time. Celebrity culture, modern politics, the internet, TV, social media, tabloid newspapers, binge drinking – they all get a bashing. Hitler spends much of his time in a state of furious astonishment at the idiocy of the modern world and the parlous state of the German people, led by a woman for god’s sake. When he’s exposed to modern TV for the first time he’s amazed by its vacuous nature; he fears there must be a bread shortage when he’s given a granola bar and finally sees the point of those pesky ringtones when his secretary assigns him The Ride of the Valkyries. Like all good satire, there are sharp observations within the jollity – Hitler has trouble with his email address as so many people have already nabbed the appropriate ones, he’s gratified to find so few mixed race children despite the Turkish immigrant population, after the initial wonder of the ‘Internetwork’ he’s quick to spot a propaganda tool. At times he’s horribly plausible, and of course he loves animals and children. The novel ends on a warning note – maybe there are some people who think he wasn’t all bad. It’s hard to keep blistering satire up for well over three hundred pages even if it is punctuated by slapstick hilarity and, for me, the novel was a little too long. That said, no one could accuse Vermes of being anything but original. Hats off to translator Jamie Bulloch, not just for an excellent translation but for adding a short essay on the German historical and political context for the novel.
Not surprisingly, Look Who’s Back caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published. It stormed up the bestseller charts and stayed there for 70 weeks, apparently. It’s a brave author who tackles a taboo subject in the way Vermes has – I’m British but I felt a little squirmy at times. What do you think? Are there any subjects you’d consider completely verboten?